Tuesday, December 11, 2007

At Risk Ontology

There have been ontological theories in the past that had been so radically surpassed by the explanatory powers of greater theoretical systems that they had been completely eliminated from the picture. For example, the idea that phlogiston was released during combustion, which created the appearance of "fire" or "rust". Wikipedia in fact has an entire category page full of obsolete scientific theories like this. Generally speaking, there are many scientific theories that we would expect to be at risk of elimination today. But specifically, there are theories I have in mind. These theories--folk theories, strictly speaking--are about the nature of first-person experience and many think they should be entirely eliminated from the philosophical and scientific vocabulary. These are, namely, the propositional attitudes theory and the qualia theory. It's the idea that there really are these things: beliefs, desires, consciousness--that are not reducible to the language of materialism or physicalism.

I like that these should be referred to as "at risk". This is supposed to be similar to the crime prevention program for youth that goes by the title "At Risk Youth". The idea is that some youth that show signs of potential criminal tendencies and/or recidivism and will be put on this program and observed carefully for several months or years. This is an intense period of scrutiny, to see whether the youth will pass the test or not.

I propose we put scientific theories that are at risk of obsolescence on a similar program--that we should we should scrutinize the theory for an extended period of time to see if it shows signs of failing or degeneration. While the At Risk Youth program aims at eventually rehabilitating an adolescent, however, the At Risk Ontology program would aim at eventually phasing out the theory once a suitable candidate research program with greater explanatory power can be found.

With At Risk Youth we run the risk of fulfilling our own prophecies about the adolescent. However with the theories I mentioned above, they are already extremely problematic in the philosophic community. If not indubitably at risk, they are at least temporarily suspended in the mid-air of scientific practice and dithering nervously over the papers of the philosophic community. No one knows just what to say about them anymore, other than to shuffle them over to the science department for straightening out.

But before the philosophic community does that, they have to tidy some things up a bit. And that would ostensibly require Occamizing all the unkempt bits and pieces of the last forty years of subjective analysis on the nature of the mind.

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